Love can be the hardest thing … to prove

Published 8:47 am Tuesday, September 28, 2010

David Behling, Notes from Home

It was late in the evening, past my bedtime. In other words, a little after 9 p.m. The boy comes to the doorway of our darkened bedroom and whines: “You didn’t make any tea for me again this morning? Don’t you love me?”

He was nagging in a teasing way, of course. But the question still stung. I had forgotten to make his tea that morning. I had been forgetting for most of the week. Absent-mindedness makes a poor excuse, especially when it’s used multiple times during the week.

David Behling

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Hot tea has been a habit for several years; Mondays through Fridays during the school year, I make my son — at almost 17 hardly a boy anymore — a cup of tea as I fix my breakfast. I often make myself a pot of tea much earlier, when I first get up, but that tea would be cold by the time he scrunched out of bed. It’s a little thing I do for him, but it’s a tradition. As such, it’s important. And so it looked as if I didn’t care or had forgotten him, not just the cup of tea.

In their online forum, the online philosophy class I teach recently discussed their answer to this question: How do you “prove” you love somebody? It’s prompted from a scene in the film “Contact”; a scientist is challenged by a preacher to “prove” she loved her father, who had died of heart failure when she was 12 years old. Unlike the preacher, the scientist says she only trusts or believes in things for which she can prove existence.

The students’ discussion ranged all over the place, but they ultimately came up with the same answer: you can’t “prove” you love anybody.

I’ve taught this class before, and it almost always starts with a student giving that answer right off the bat, only to have it challenged. But the more they discuss their “proofs” the more they realize they can’t prove love at all. Love is not something that exists in the world of facts and evidence.

What about you? Easy, you might be saying. We can demonstrate our love for others in actions — that’s a pretty strong statement, and for most of us, that would be proof. But are we really all that certain that we can differentiate the actions of somebody who really loves us — unconditionally or not — from the actions of someone who wants us to take out the trash or get money from us or (and of course this never happens) sleep with us? Are we even sure about our own motivations for our actions in relationships? Maybe it’s not so easy after all.

I’m not just talking about romantic love, but any kind of love. How can any of us prove that a relationship is at that level?

Oh, we can usually tell when somebody else — especially young men and women — are “in love” with someone. Sometimes we even have a pretty good idea of who the beloved is (it’s easiest when they’re “in love” with each other). Romantic love often resembles an ailment, after all, with the sweating, blushing, dizziness, etc. But can either of those two “crazy in love” people prove it to each other? Do they even bother trying?

Here’s an odd thing: It can be easier to recognize the absence of love than it is to prove its existence. Nagging and criticizing all the time is not a sign of love. Neither are slapping and hitting or other casual acts of cruelty. Nor is asking for proof that we are loved by someone. When we love someone — a single partner or a whole family — we don’t get drunk every night or spend all our free time in front of TVs or computer screens. So it could very well be that the opposite is possible: perhaps we can prove we don’t love another person more easily than we can prove that we love them.

I will do a better job of remembering to make that cup of tea each morning; which actually means I will make that task a habit (habits are the way absent-minded people cope with forgetfulness). I’ll reclaim that morning ritual because I love my son, and because this is something concrete I can do for him, whatever it does or does not prove.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.